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VOL. 45 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 7, 2021

As other states legalize weed, Tennessee passes to right

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What are the chances Tennessee will become the first Southern state to legalize marijuana for recreational use?

Trick question! The answer, technically, is zero, because Virginia has already taken that step. As of July 1, possession and cultivation by adults 21 and older will be legal, and the state will tax and regulate the substance when commercial sales become legal Jan. 1, 2024.

I say “technically,” though, because an argument can be made – and I’m making it – that Virginia really isn’t a Southern state anymore, geography and history notwithstanding. It now has a Democratic governor and a Democratic-controlled legislature, and it has voted for a Democrat for president in every election since 2008.

Southern states used to vote Democratic routinely, but that pattern started reversing course once the party came to be associated with allowing African Americans to vote. Encouraging them to, even.

Coincidence?

In any event, Virginia is now more like New York, another blue state and the other one where legislators voted this year to legalize recreational use.

Surprisingly, though, of the 16 states allowing weed for fun (plus the District of Columbia), at least three have Republican trifectas: Control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. Those are Arizona, Montana and South Dakota.

Wonder how legal weed happened in those solid red states? In each case, residents bypassed legislators and voted for it in statewide referendums. In Arizona, 60% said yes. In some cases, probably, hell yes.

If I had to live through Arizona summers, I’d sure be looking for a way to seriously alter my perception of reality.

States with Republican trifectas that have approved some form of medical marijuana include Arkansas and Mississippi – both, again, accomplished by votes of the people rather than by legislators.

This would seem to argue that, at least when it comes to marijuana, state residents are more mellow than their elected representatives.

Might that also be the case in Tennessee?

A 2018 poll by Middle Tennessee State University found that 37% supported marijuana for personal use, with 44% giving the thumbs-up solely for medical purposes. Perhaps most telling, only 16% said it should remain totally illegal.

I suspect that, since then, support for relaxing the rules has grown.

Tennessee – another of the Republican trifectas – is one of only eight states in which marijuana is fully illegal. Possession of even small amounts can mean jail time, though not in Davidson County, where the district attorney doesn’t prosecute cases involving less than half an ounce.

Legislators here have had the chance to change the state’s position this session, with more than a dozen bills relating to marijuana or cannabis filed. Most had to do with medicinal use, and those are the ones that got the most sympathetic reception, though not sympathetic enough.

An effort I found intriguing would have allowed for retail sales of marijuana in amounts up to one-half-ounce and placed a state tax of 12% on the sales. Predictably, it’s gotten nowhere.

Which brings me back to where I started this whole discussion: The more appropriate question is whether Tennessee will be the last state to allow recreational use.

If ever.

Rep. Brandon Ogles introduced a House joint resolution that would, among other things, change the state constitution to prohibit the legislature from approving marijuana for fun.

“This will ensure we never have recreational drug use in this state,” Ogles told members of a House subcommittee.

No, it wouldn’t. We’ll always have recreational use of marijuana.

Here’s part of an email I got recently from a Nashville newcomer who previously was living in Cancun, Mexico:

“I was trying to find out if you have done any writing on the amount of people in Tennessee that use pot,” he wrote. “I ask this because in the many areas we shop around town, the smell of marijuana coming off people is really overpowering at times ...

“I had lived in Colorado (a pot-legal state) prior to my move to Mexico and never, ever smelled as much pot as here in Tennessee.”

I can’t speak for elsewhere in the state. I don’t get around that much.

But it’s clear on my walks around my Nashville environs that there’s more than just the smell of spring in the air.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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